From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones
INDEPENDENCE, MO -- No party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism, Obama told the audience here Monday, spelling out his own definition of a concept increasingly at issue in this historic election.
Flanked by four American flags and wearing a flag pin on his lapel, the presumptive Democratic nominee used a variation of the word "patriot" some 35 times during his roughly 45-minute speech. He said the upcoming July 4th holiday was a good time to reflect on the meaning of the word, and argued it had been used "as a political sword or a political shield" since the birth of the Republic and in this election.
"It is worth considering the meaning of patriotism because the question of who is -- or is not -- a patriot all too often poisons our political debates, in ways that divide us rather than bringing us together," he told an audience of about 1,150 people in the Truman Auditorium here. "I have come to know this from my own experience on the campaign trail."
Obama said he had taken his own patriotism as a given all his life, but had seen it questioned this election season. "At certain times over the last 16 months, I've found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged -- at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears and doubts about who I am and what I stand for," he said. "So let me say at this at the outset of my remarks. I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign. And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine."
Like his speech on race in Philadelphia during the primary campaign, political observers were likely to watch this address closely, along with those voters who are still uneasy about Obama because of his name, his background, and his upbringing.
The need for the speech highlights the traction that Internet rumors about the senator's faith and supposed lack of patriotism has had. Before the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, Obama was asked in several town halls about his resistance to say the Pledge of Allegiance. He repeatedly explained the rumor was false and talked about leading the pledge while in the Senate.
If Obama -- a non-typical candidate when it comes to his race and his upbringing in places like Hawaii and Indonesia -- is to expand the electoral map this election year, as his campaign has repeatedly said he aims to do, he has to gain ground with voters who worry that he is not like them and cannot relate to their concerns.
Today in this symbolically named town in a state he hopes to move to the blue column in the fall, Obama linked the notion of patriotism to his own life. "For a young man like me, of mixed race, without firm anchor in any particular community, without even a father's steadying hand, it is this essential American idea -- that we are not constrained by the accident of birth but can make of our lives what we will -- that has defined my life, just as it has defined the life of so many other Americans," he said to applause.
He talked about childhood memories and the lessons his family taught him about what it means to be an American and spoke of pasts presidents like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (who had had their patriotism questioned) and others like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt (who had used the notion of patriotism to justify unpatriotic or unconstitutional actions).
He called Martin Luther King Jr. and the Abu Ghraib whistleblower patriots for pointing out injustice, and he quoted Missourian Mark Twain to applause, saying: "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it."
Obama also linked the today's debate about patriotism to the "culture wars of the 1960s," as he distanced himself from an attack made last fall by the liberal group MoveOn.org on Gen. David Petraeus.
"All too often our politics still seems trapped in these old, threadbare arguments -- a fact most evident during our recent debates about the war in Iraq, when those who opposed administration policy were tagged by some as unpatriotic, and a general providing his best counsel on how to move forward in Iraq was accused of betrayal," he said. "Given the enormous challenges that lie before us, we can no longer afford these divisions. "
MoveOn took out an ad last fall calling the then commanding general of the multinational force in Iraq "General Betray Us" as he testified on Capitol Hill about the situation in Iraq. Obama, though, refused to vote on a Senate measure condemning the MoveOn ad, calling it a stunt.
The senator was introduced by a young former army captain and Iraq war vet, and he cited the casualty rate in Iraq at the beginning of his speech, arguing it was important to reflect on what patriotism means when the country is in the midst of war.
He talked about the importance of honoring those who have served in the US military and made a point of rejecting -- albeit indirectly -- Gen. Wes Clark's remarks this weekend in which the general, a Democratic candidate in the last election and until recently a Clinton supporter, seemed to belittle McCain's military service.
Obama said that veterans who had "endured physical torment in service to our country" did not need to prove they had sacrificed for American and that "no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides. We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform. Period. Full stop."